|Alfred North Whitehead
Born in 1861, died in 1947. Whitehead was a world famous English philosopher and mathematician. His Science and the Modern World was published in many translations. He was invited to Harvard in 1924. I began reading Whitehead about 1955. I gradually began to realize the immensity of his contribution to philosophy, somewhat in the background of logical positivist and language philosophers from the late 50’s to the 80’s.
Whitehead is becoming more recognized for his philosophy of organism and his difficult but magnificent book Process and Reality. Even though I am not able to follow his mathematics, his philosophic work is the most important influence on my thought and design. My collage painting is inspired by Whitehead’s theory of events and may be considered as an effort to illustrate his theory in image form.
Reading Whitehead over the years has led me to be influeced by his writing style, which at its best is clear, colorful, powerful and at time worth of great literature.
|In my case I can at times be wordy and include too many ideas on a page. I have made extensive notebooks of quotations from his Science and the Modern World, Adventures of Ideas and Process and Reality.|
Whitehead’s theory parallels gestalt theory in that both are concerned with the formation of perceived parts into closures, or wholes. But Whitehead goes beyond the goal of that ever-present gestalt diagram: the recognition of a profiled human face in the outline of a vase, made visible by reversing our attention to the light-colored background bordering the black-colored vase. Theoretically, Whitehead accounts for anything that can be felt and thought during the process of such recognition; for example, when I see the profile of the vase reminding me of a poorly-designed Roman urn in so many texts that I become bored with it. During the act of perception such conceptually or emotionally based feelings exist on the same level as other determinations of the face/vase, such as its black color or its appearance as a human face rather than that of a baboon, even though we may screen our such ideation in favor of accepting the concept of the reversible face/vase as a fact of theoretical importance to perception and thought.
Can a logic of phonemes, the logical-linguistic definitions used by Wittgenstein or Derrida’s proposition that “there is nothing but the text” (mere words and linguistic forms) take us to a full-blown realization of Shakespeare’s lines? Not unless they can recognize the Western ethos which, for over two thousand years, has striven to define human purpose, individuality, futility, fate and existential meaninglessness; or understand appropriate metaphoric contexts for “yesterdays,” “creeps” and “petty” in context with the line “from day to day”; or the appropriate reading of “fools” in situ.
Presentational Immediacy and Causal Efficacy. For Whitehead, there are two models involved in every act of perception. One is presentational immediacy, which is the initial reception of bare sense data of experience, including the shapes, colors, sounds, tactile sensations and smells that are directly and immediately perceived before further acts of interpretation. The other is causal efficacy, which is the transfer of the embodied experience of our body-mind that fills the bare sense of presentational immediacy with meaning. When a baby learns that it cannot touch the mood he or she is learning about space, color, distance, form and “being in the world” with the moon. This is embodied experience, which is the ground for causal efficacy, to be reconstituted in new situations as bare sense data are presented. Adults contemplating what the moon is made of undergo the same transfer in their imaginations.
Prehension. Prehension refers to apprehension that is not necessarily conscious. To prehend is to grasp a component of an event on its way to becoming an actual entity. For instance, I prehend the gradation of blue sky as it darkens toward the horizon, or an anxious feeling when, as an eight-year-old, I see the local bully approaching me. Prehensions are the only means of penetrating events to advance thought and feeling about their contents.
Event. An event is a discernible or an imagined happening. The term applies to our perception of things such as an apple, a planet, a unicorn, or of an identifiable emotion, such as a particular joy by which we know the actual or imagined world. Events are known through the medium of prehensions and actual entities, which are our initial closures of experience. Actual entities are produced by mental concrescences during the early stages of perception. Our notions of the mood or a particular joy are derived from such constructs and grasped into unities. Events are to be conceived as four-dimensional happenings having relationship to other events in the extended physical field of space-time. By feeling, recognizing contrasts and identities, and by thinking both logically and metaphorically, aspects of one event are harmonized with aspects of other events to create meaning.
Actual Occasion. In my studio I look through a window to a deck and trees beyond. The wall surrounding the window, the window, tress and patches of sky are events that are extensive and overlapping, with some ambiguous boundaries. The window frame is an actual occasion, a spatialized set of cues, which is a limited event itself enabling me to focus on it within the environment of events previously noted. For human perception, the world is built up out of actual occasions. Events, actual entities and actual occasions represent different foci upon which to grasp and process the objects and thoughts of perception.
Concrescence. All actual entities are composed of other entities brought together by a mental act. As I perceive the blue sky I form an actual entity bringing together a selection of my past experiences of blue, atmosphere, light, space, the horizon, sunsets, and so forth. I may also bring in a component of anticipation, for example, whether the sky suggests a good day for a picnic or not. This is a process of concrescence. As Whitehead explains, the concrescence solves the problem of how several components of objectified content are to be unified in one felt realization.
Negative Prehension. In a concrescence of blue sky, I ignore the dirt specks on my eyeglasses to focus on the sky’s brightness and blueness. The process of concrescence involves the exclusion of prehensions that do not fit its primary focus. I have dismissed the dirt specks as a negative prehension. Certain negative prehensions can be included as contrasts within the realization of an actual entity. For example, my closure of blue sky includes the view of dense, polluting smoke from a chimney that I have chosen not to dismiss.
Nexus. A nexus is a set of actual entities felt in the unity of their prehensions. The nexus of calm in Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter (figure 14), where proportions of the colored shapes are calm, the light is calm, the body language of the woman is calm, and the sense of her interior life is calm, provides an illustration.
Duration. A duration is a sensed simultaneity within events. It is a limited natural entity of perception happening in time, and is necessary to form gestalt wholes. For instance, I discern the branch, foliage and tree shapes to recognize a redwood tree.
Datum. The datum acts as both a limitation to, and a provider of meaning as we organize our responses to events. A real component, like the particular deep blue sky over the Aegean Sea seen on a clear day, assumes the role of directing my concrescence of light on Greek ruins at Delos. The moon acts as the principal feature of datum directing a concrescence of the nighttime sky, or perhaps the datum is the gaze of a fair companion with the moon in the sky beyond. The datum is rather like a gateway directing me as I shape additional elements of feeling and ideation into determinate linkages attaining the unity of my particular satisfaction.
Eternal Object. An eternal object is a form of definiteness that can occur in diverse actual entities, such as a particular shade of white that occurs in a while flower, white paper or white wedding dress. Events, actual entities and concrescences are unique. Eternal objects provide the grounds of continuity and unification among these diverse entities. No character belongs to the actual, apart from its determination by eternal objects. Directed by subjective aim, the mind processes a shade of white, a notion of poverty, or the arresting profile line of the head of Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter, by mapping and cross-referencing from appropriate, selected experiential domains and contexts out of a vast number of remembered potentialities. Our ability to map these potentialities into feelings and thoughts holds together our world of meaning.
Extensive Continuum. The extensive continuum is a mental concept necessary to explain the connections and associations among events, actual occasions and actual entities in the physical universe outside our heads. The embodied experience harbored in the body-mind provides the source for making connections and associations within the extensive continuum. Meaning always involves human understanding of a world that we can make sense of. Thus understanding depends on our ability to see entities in terms of other entities in this world. Thus understanding requires imagination. The bread looks and smells fresh. Thus the color, texture and smells of the bread, and our associations with freshness and staleness, become paramount to understanding. The extensive continuum supplies the vehicle for this understanding.
Feeling. Each actual entity includes a process of “feeling” the many data associated with it, so as to absorb them into the unity of one individual satisfaction. For example, I feel the outline, wrinkles, skin, curves and light reflections of my hand as I lift them out of the event in which they are situated to create an actual entity such as “graceful proportions” or “reptilian quality.” “Feeling” is the term for the basic operation of passing from the objectivity of the selected hand data to the subjectivity of the actual entity in question. Considering that my hand appears as a rather pallid, somewhat reptilian object, surprisingly I can still feel my hand as an aesthetically pleasing satisfaction because I have focused on what I see as its good proportions and my knowledge of its good uses. All data are potentials for feeling.
Conformal Feelings. In concrescence of the sharpness of a spear point or the roundness of a beach ball, I feel the qualitative character of the sharp angles of the spear as piercing, or the roundness of the ball as soft, tat or expanding. These are physical feelings, resulting from my processing of strain feelings, Whitehead’s term for our feelings as we respond to the piercing of the spear point or stretched tautness of the beach ball. As I realize the definite distinctions of the spear or the ball, I have felt the limitation that is imposed by my past experience by physically and mentally conforming to that experience. Such feelings are conformal feelings.
Strain Feelings. Strain feelings are our body-mind responses to the topographies of forms and their textures. The taut roundness of a beach ball is a strain feeling. Our sense of merging with fog or snow evokes strain feelings.
Conceptual Feeling. A conceptual feeling involves a conscious limitation allowing an entity to be realized as this particular and not some other. This exclusiveness requires the recognition of eternal objects, such as sharpness and straightness in feeling the spear point, or of roundness and tautness in feeling the ball. Thus to be conscious of the spear point or the ball requires conceptual feelings, even though familiarity with the object, “beach ball, “ may allow us to short circuit “taut roundness” and skip ahead to other closures and concerns.
Propositional Feeling. A propositional feeling refers to comparisons and inferences derived from logical subjects. Hamlet’s speech, “To be or not to be…,” contrasts propositional feelings. Such feelings can only arise in a late stage of the cognitive process, after subjects such as “being” and contexts such as “not being” have been sorted through by subjective aim.
Object. An object is any actual entity that can be felt. Objects range from the continuity of a spherical surface to the particular sentience expressed in the face of a young woman in a Vermeer.
Object and Subject. An actual entity is an object in that it is able to initiate and fashion creative actions. For example, a creative action is my processing the sight of chewed fingernails into a sign of nervousness. An actual entity is also a subject arising from prehensions of the universe. For example, I have prehensions of life situations (prehensions of the universe) that lead to chewed fingernails. Objects can become subjects and subjects can become objects. A thumbnail or a notion of sentience is either an object or a subject, depending on which emphasis is acted upon.
Superject. The overview that shapes the concrescence and directs the subject. The first light of dawn as a subject conditioned by the overview of one who has been frightened by the dark would be an example. The blue sky directed as a sign of comfort and joy or, in contrast, as a sign of drought would be another.
Subjective Aim. Subjective aim is the agent that lies behind all purposive adaptation to the environment. In human experience, subjective aim is expressed in our actions upon our imagined future. It is the influence of the future on the present as it directs the completion of concrescences and satisfactory closures. Subjective aim is the element effecting creativity in the perception of an event, for it determines which possibilities are selected for its completion. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, in a carefully crafted treatment, explains the neural basis of the self. He envisions how ensembles of neurons receive signals from the representation of both the perceived object and the self as qualified by the object. This information is then utilized in a third kind of image that initiates a subjective perspective. Subjective aim becomes an interpretive scheme of which we may or may not be aware.
Appetition. The urge – conscious or, more often, subconscious – to continue or to withdraw the feelings and thoughts that arise in a concrescence. Appetition is characterized by the self-interest of the enduring personality as it accepts, rejects and transforms fresh experience.
Whitehead and Heidegger. I wish to not several similarities and differences between Whitehead and Heidegger. Currently the more influential philosopher in the academy appears to be Heidegger, who in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties produced writings on what Whitehead terms “subjective aim.” Heidegger discusses at length the introduction of “prehensive drive,” and “appetition” by Leibniz, as a foreground to his own concept of Dasein, his German term for the existential conditions of “being in the world.” This drive, and its ordering of thought and experience in coming to meaning, is approximate to Whitehead’s subjective aim, in which a synthesis of knowing, feeling and appetition overtakes a concrescence “in advance,” as in my oft-repeated example of the profile of Athena’s “Greek” nose and forehead, which I process as a sign of intelligence.
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